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Cabinet Office

Volume 513: debated on Wednesday 14 July 2010

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Civil Service Compensation Scheme

1. What recent discussions he has had with trade union representatives on reform of the civil service compensation scheme. (8067)

I wrote to the chairman of the Council of Civil Service Unions immediately after making my statement to the House on 6 July. I have invited the unions to begin discussions with us on developing a sustainable and affordable long-term successor to the current civil service compensation scheme. I met the unions yesterday, and my officials have had further meetings with them.

I thank the Minister for that answer. As he will appreciate, thousands of civil servants currently face losing their jobs as a result of this Government’s policies. Will such people be able to rely on their contractual terms?

It is common ground that the current civil service compensation scheme is unaffordable. The hon. Lady’s own Government attempted to introduce a new scheme that introduced modest changes to the current scheme. That was agreed by five out of the six civil service unions, but sadly, the sixth did not agree, went to the High Court, and had it struck down. The result is that savings that had been scheduled to be made by the previous Government now cannot be made, so there is an additional cost. I have taken the view that it is not responsible to leave matters as they are. Nor is it fair to leave in limbo for ever people who know that there is, through no fault of their own, no job for them for the future, which has been the case for some time.

Does the Minister accept that any plans severely to restrict redundancy payments for hundreds of thousands of low-paid civil servants will be seen as a kick in the teeth for thousands of workers who have faced uncertainty about their jobs over the past few years, and who face uncertainty in the future?

It is precisely for that reason that I want to engage quickly with the unions to negotiate additional protection for low-paid workers. Contrary to general belief, large numbers of civil servants are not very well paid—half of them earn £21,000 a year or less—and we want there to be extra protection for them. I want to engage as quickly as possible with the unions to negotiate an arrangement that has not only fairness but accountability built into it.

Last week, the Minister said that his proposals may not have been necessary if the Public and Commercial Services Union had joined the other five trade unions in agreeing to the previous Government’s reform package. That being so, will he start his negotiations with that package, which would have saved £500 million over three years and protected the lowest paid?

As I say, we are very keen to have proper protection for the lowest-paid workers. Had that scheme been in existence when the coalition Government came into office, a pressing case would have been made to leave it as it was and work on that basis. That option is no longer on the table, so it seemed to us right to look at a scheme that is sustainable for the long term. The previous revised scheme made only relatively modest changes, and it was still way out of kilter with anything available under the statutory redundancy scheme or, indeed, throughout most of the private sector.

I am grateful for that answer. However, it is hard to take the Minister seriously about these negotiations when after all the press speculation, and more than a week after he sent his letter to the trade unions, the 600,000 staff who are affected still have no details of what he is proposing other than the threat of a 12-month cap on redundancy payments to all staff. Why should the lowest-paid staff—the junior official in a jobcentre—be treated in exactly the same way as the permanent secretary of a Government Department?

It is precisely my intention that that should not be the case. That is why I want to engage with the unions quickly to develop a scheme that protects the lowest paid. It is quite a complicated thing to do—it is not capable of being done in the course of a Bill—so we need to negotiate it. I want to ensure that it works and is effective in providing fairness, but is also affordable. I hope that we can engage with this as soon as possible. I have made it clear to the unions that it is our intention not only to negotiate on the ceiling that is available for voluntary redundancy schemes but to provide protection for the lower paid.

Government Projects (Consultants)

In May, we announced an immediate freeze on the use of consultants. Where there is an operational necessity and the work cannot be carried out by in-house staff, any new consultancy spend above £20,000 a month must be signed off by a Minister. In addition, all consultancy spend, whether pre-existing or newly approved, must be re-approved on a rolling basis every three months. Processes are now in place whereby both my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary and I must personally approve any request to employ a consultant beyond nine months.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Has he considered the fact that by reducing the use of consultants, we will be able to help public servants to develop their own careers more successfully, and that that will have the added advantage of protecting jobs, because we can keep the work with them rather than putting it out to consultants?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The excessive use of consultants—we discovered that there were 2,500 consultants embedded in Whitehall across Government—is not only expensive and a wasteful use of money but demoralising for mainstream civil servants, who feel that they are undervalued. By cutting back on the use of consultants we can begin to re-equip the mainstream civil service with the professional skills that it wants.

Can the Minister assure the House that the Government will not employ any consultants at all on the experimental free market schools strategy at the Department for Education? I am sure I heard a rumour that the Government had paid half a million pounds to the New Schools Network.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that if there are any consultants being used, that will have been signed off personally by a Minister in the Department for Education and will be made public online shortly. He should address his question to my colleagues in that Department and scan the website for notification.

Voluntary and Community Sectors

We thoroughly accept the implication of the question. Voluntary organisations are subject to much too much regulation and monitoring. That is why, in addition to the important work that Lord Young is doing on reducing the impact of health and safety legislation and the compensation culture on those organisations, we are about to launch a specific taskforce to examine the impact of regulation on small organisations. We hope to announce the chair of that taskforce very shortly and that it will complete its work by next spring.

I thank the Minister for his answer. One of the key areas of the Government’s big society project is to encourage volunteering. However, it is accepted that in many disadvantaged areas there are lower levels of volunteering. For example, school governor places remain vacant. Will he consider how we can break down the barriers, whether regulatory or otherwise, that deter a broader number of people from coming forward to volunteer, particularly in disadvantaged areas?

The short answer to my hon. Friend’s question is yes. She is absolutely right that we need to break down those barriers, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education is currently looking at how we might do that.

It is important to note that the accusation that is sometimes made that school governors will need to have Criminal Records Bureau checks is not correct. Unless those governors are involved in working with children in school on a day-to-day basis, all that needs to be checked is the list 99 bar. We are, of course, also looking at how we can reduce CRB checks to a common-sense level and at the vetting and barring regime. I hope that all those things will help persuade people that it is well worth doing important voluntary work.

All over the country this Sunday there will be “big lunch” street parties, and Battersea is no exception. In my area it has been greatly facilitated by the council issuing a flat-rate charge for street closures with an easily completed form, and generally being accommodating and encouraging. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should encourage all councils to do that?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her part in getting that to happen, and her council on taking that admirable attitude. One reason why we are so keen to decentralise and to give councils much more responsibility and power is precisely that they can then take sensible local initiatives of that kind to encourage local and community groups to flourish, which of course is part of our big society agenda.

Order. May I just appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to face the House so that we can all enjoy his mellifluous tones?

What plans does my right hon. Friend have to extend longer-term funding to voluntary sector organisations so that they can do more?

I should say, Mr Speaker, that no one has previously accused me of having a mellifluous tone.

My hon. Friend is on to something enormously important. It is not just that we need to extend additional funding—it is much more than that. We need to involve the voluntary sector in a whole range of massive reform programmes. We hope to see it involved in schools, in the rehabilitation revolution, in the Work programme, in drug and alcohol rehabilitation and in much else besides. We are moving away from the micro-management of processes in contracts and towards a very exciting new world of payment by results, so that voluntary organisations can use their talents and initiative to achieve real results.

One of the biggest barriers to volunteering and volunteer groups is taxation, not just the increase in VAT that was voted through last night but the level of taxation that volunteer drivers have to pay on their mileage. Will the Ministers please talk to HM Customs and the Chancellor about the increase in that taxation, in line with the petrol duty increase over the past decade?

The hon. Gentleman tempts me to do something that a ministerial career cannot long survive—speak for the Chancellor of the Exchequer on tax matters. I certainly undertake to continue the discussions with the Chancellor, which I have on all occasions, about how he can further our general programme to favour community groups in the voluntary sector. That is high on his agenda as well as ours.

Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that increasing the rate of VAT for charities will help them deal with the real difficulties of over-regulation?

It appears that there is a combined effort on the Labour Benches to persuade me to adopt the role of a Treasury Minister, which I am not and cannot do. Of course, we are conscious of the burdens that fall on the voluntary sector. However, for many people in that sector, a framework that enables them to do what they do best, in a way that achieves results, is what really counts. My response to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) is the response to that.

Big Society Bank

The Government are committed to setting up that independent wholesale bank to develop the market for social investment. It will be funded by dormant bank accounts and I will work with ministerial colleagues to establish it by April 2011.

When visiting the River Bourne community farm in my constituency in Salisbury and many other community groups, I found that one of their big concerns is the bureaucracy that they might face when accessing the funds from the Big Society bank, though they are encouraged by its creation. Will my hon. Friend confirm the process and the means whereby small community groups, which do not have the information, can access those much needed funds?

The intention is for the bank to be as independent and unbureaucratic as possible. It will be a wholesaler, not a retailer, so it will support intermediaries that are growing the market for social investment. If it invests in social enterprises in Salisbury, it will do so through intermediaries that have structured financial products, such as social impact or community bonds that connect private capital with the opportunity for good, and for social impact.

Has the Minister had any discussions with credit unions? The big idea of a bank is very similar to what already exists. Why reinvent the wheel?

I have had a series of discussions with several intermediaries in the marketplace that are in the business of trying to encourage and support social investment. The intention is for the bank to stand behind and support those intermediaries to allow them to do more.

Civil Servants (Terms and Conditions)

5. What recent representations he has received from trade unions on proposed changes to the terms and conditions of employment of civil servants. (8071)

I met the Council of Civil Service Unions yesterday. The main issue discussed was the proposed changes to the civil service compensation scheme, which I covered in my reply to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark).

Did my right hon. Friend discuss yesterday a subject of great public concern: civil servants on average have higher pay, get better pensions, work shorter hours and have longer holidays than their private sector counterparts, and they also have lower productivity? What are the Government doing about that?

Public sector productivity generally fell in absolute terms in the past 12 years, whereas private sector productivity rose by between 20 and 30%. There is therefore a problem with productivity in the public sector. However, I must tell my hon. Friend that median pay in the civil service is lower than that in the private sector, but pay in the wider public sector is higher.

Voluntary Sector

As the House has heard, we intend to reduce the bureaucratic burdens on the sector and get more resources into it, not least through the Big Society bank and a new community grants programme. We want to reform commissioning to make it easier for voluntary sector organisations to compete for public sector contracts.

Rumbles is a charity in my constituency that provides training for young people with learning difficulties. It has enjoyed a good relationship with local colleges, supplying national vocational qualifications, but recent budgetary pressures have put the whole system under threat. What will the Minister do to help support the relationship between local colleges and local charities and volunteers?

I thank my hon. Friend for giving me advance notice of his specific constituency interest. I have liaised with the Department for Education, which is very clear that the voluntary sector has an important role in ensuring that all 16 to 18-year-olds can access learning opportunities that best suit them. However, the Department pointed out that it is for colleges to decide what their learning offer should be. On a more constructive note, if Rumbles believes it has a learning offer that will fill a gap in the 16-to-18 learning market, it should discuss it with the local authority and seek to become a 16-to-18 provider in its own right.

7. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the compact between the Government and the voluntary sector. (8073)

The right hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in this area. The Government are fully committed to the compact, as the Prime Minister stated when he launched the big society programme at No. 10 on 18 May. That is why my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General has written to Ministers with responsibility for the big society agenda to ask them to consider the compact as decisions on in-year budgetary savings and efficiencies are taken.

I welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities, and I am sure that we will look at the detail of this matter in the coming months. Departments and Government agencies are large and powerful, whereas voluntary organisations are generally small and innovative. Does he therefore agree that supporting the compact process is an important responsibility of Ministers across Departments, as is ensuring fairness in how Departments deal with the voluntary sector organisations that are vital to their work?

I totally understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point. That is why we have set up a group of Ministers with responsibility for the big society agenda. The first meeting of those Ministers will be chaired by the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General next week. The compact and our plans to strengthen the transparency and accountability of its implementation will be on the agenda.

Efficiency Savings

We have identified significant scope for efficiency savings through a variety of means, including moratoriums on information and communications technology spending of more than £1 million, on consultants costing more than £20,000 a month, on advertising and marketing spend, on new websites and on new or renewed property leases. Other means include a freeze on recruitment, the procurement of goods and services for the whole Government using our aggregated scale to drive down prices, removing discrepancies such as the variation of 170% in the cost of a standard computer monitor, and renegotiating with the Government’s biggest suppliers on a portfolio basis to take out excessive cost. I met the 20 biggest suppliers to the Government last week to kick that process off. That is just the beginning; there is much more to do.

In the light of that important answer, does my right hon. Friend remember the pledge given in 2006 by the previous Government to reduce dramatically the 794 websites that they ran at that time? Accordingly, was he as astonished as I was to discover just a few weeks ago that the number of websites had actually grown to 820? What is he doing to reduce that inefficient use of public resources?

My hon. Friend is completely right that the result of the previous Government’s attempt to cut the number of websites was actually a significant increase. We will take urgent steps to cut the number of websites, particularly in relation to those that compete with each other. I discovered that the Department of Energy and Climate Change was bidding against the Carbon Trust for spots on Google, which is one indication of the lack of discipline in that field.

Has the efficiency and reform group made an assessment of the Government’s programme for converting 800 schools into academies at a cost of £495 million over the next four years? In particular, has the group formed a view on whether that represents good value for money when set against the loss of hundreds of new school buildings following the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme?

That was a very good effort from the right hon. Gentleman, but we believe that the coalition’s programme to increase the number of academies is very valuable. It is part of the process of giving much more power to parents, and of giving the schools that are available for local people the ability to reflect what they want rather than what central planners dictate.

National Citizen Service

The coalition Government are committed to introducing a national citizen service to give young people an opportunity to develop the skills needed to be active and responsible citizens, mix with people from different backgrounds and get involved in their communities in order to promote engagement, cohesion and responsibility. Details of this programme will be announced by the Cabinet Office later this year, with a launch expected in 2011.

The national citizen service will provide a vital outlet, especially for disadvantaged young people in my constituency of Weaver Vale. How can we ensure that this group of young people get involved?

The whole point is to bring together young people from different backgrounds, rather in the way that national service was a great leveller. People from all sorts of backgrounds and geographies came together to work together, and that did promote cohesion. We are especially concerned that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds should not be excluded from this process. I hear what my hon. Friend says and it would be good if one of the pilot schemes next year could involve disadvantaged young people from his constituency. [Interruption.]

Order. An enormous number of private conversations are taking place in the Chamber, and it is not only unseemly, but unfair on the Member asking the question and on the Minister to whose reply we all wish to listen.

North Yorkshire county council has four fantastic outdoor education centres, including Bewerley park in Nidderdale in my constituency. I suspect that my right hon. Friend does not have time for potholing, but would he come and meet me so that I can show him how those four centres could deliver on the national citizens programme?

It is not so much not having the time for potholing as not having the inclination. However, I would of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss these very desirable locations with which he tempts me.

Voluntary Sector

11. What plans he has for future Government support for local voluntary groups; and if he will make a statement. (8078)

We want to encourage more people to set up and join local voluntary groups, and we want those groups to have much more influence over the issues that affect their communities. Our plans include the training of new community organisers, who can be fantastically effective in that context, and a new community grant programme to help put money in the hands of neighbourhood groups to implement their own neighbourhood plans.

Is the Minister aware that in Harlow the big society has been operating for some time? Will he agree to visit successful charities such as the Michael Roberts charitable trust and Rainbow Services, which are ready to pilot the big society reforms, independently of Government and at the heart of the community?

I am delighted to hear that the big society is alive and well in Harlow, and I know that my hon. Friend is a passionate advocate of the values that underlie it. I am happy to confirm to him that I will visit Harlow on 29 July and I look forward to seeing what is being done, what we can learn from and what we can build on.

Does the Minister share my concern that many voluntary and community organisations that deliver public services and value for money could be targeted unfairly for cuts in the present economic environment if sufficient and proper consideration is not given to their efficiency and effectiveness?

I share that concern, and that is why I am working with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government and our strategic partners to try to identify examples of best practice, especially where local authorities are working in a partnership with the voluntary and community sector to manage this difficult transition carefully.

I welcome what my hon. Friend said about the community grant fund, especially given the difficult financial climate that many local authorities face. Can he tell us more about the timing of that fund?

The programme is subject to approval in the comprehensive spending review, but all being well our intention is for it to be operational early next year. The focus will be on trying to provide grass-roots community grants to deprived areas that are characterised by high levels of economic deprivation and low levels of social capital.

Efficiency Savings

The last Government spent a fortune on advertising themselves. How will this Government make savings in that area?

We established at an early stage a moratorium on new advertising and marketing spend. Any exceptions to that moratorium have to come to me personally, and I am delighted to find that remarkably few applications are being made for exceptions. The amount of taxpayers’ money spent by the Government on advertising and marketing has been significantly reduced. At the end of the year, I expect to be able to show a very significant reduction in what was being spent by the last Government on what I have to say was a pretty incontinent basis.